Monday, December 1, 2008

7th International Sabeel Conference: creating cultural bridges

But this and the whole conference experience also drives home something else, namely, the personality and character of so many Palestinians -- kids, youths, and older -- we met and which my country rarely is enabled to see: persons of warmth, courage, humor, dignity, grit, and a fantastic spirit of welcome
Darrel Meyers

The 7th International Sabeel Conference moved to Jerusalem but before traveling south, the international participants had the opportunity to connect with the local Christians in Nazareth. They joined in fellowship with congregations of various churches located around Nazareth. Following the service, the 300 participants were broken into groups of two to five people to eat at Nazarene family homes enjoying homemade Palestinian cooking. This informal setting allowed participants to identify with Palestinians living in Israel with citizenship on a basic human level by sharing in a universal family activity.

After lunch, participants traveled to Jerusalem and were greeted by local Jerusalemites and clergy at Saint George’s Church. This gave internationals another opportunity to connect with local Palestinians, thus exposing the internationals to a Palestinian population in a different socio-political position vis-à-vis the Israeli state.

The next day of the conference was devoted to the issue of refugees and how the solution of this issue is integral to a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In order to introduce this topic Adel Manna, research fellow at the Jerusalem Vanleer Institute, briefed the participants on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem. Manna described the context in which the five waves of refugees either fled or were expelled. It is important to note that expulsion of Palestinians occurred during the First and Second Truces of the 1948 war. Further to this, it is not widely known that expulsions continued after the war and through the 1950s. In fact, 30,000-50,000 Palestinians became refugees after the conclusion of the war constituting an ongoing Nakba.

The overview continued with a briefing by Allegra Pacheco, OCHA, concerning the occupation and annexation of Palestinian land. The concept of occupation is one of a temporary nature by international law. However, the settlements have been established with the intention of permanence and much of occupied land has remained closed areas considered military zones inaccessible to Palestinians for decades. In addition, Israel continues to annex Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and in the construction of the wall. Annexation is defined as the acquisition of land by force and is in contravention of international law.

Concluding the overview, Bob Tobin, Sabeel volunteer, read a letter from UNRWA representative Sami Mshasha describing the situation of Palestinian refugees inside of Israel and the West Bank today.

Following the briefing, the participants traveled to one of four refugee camps located in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank: Dheishe, Aida, Azza, and Aroub Camps. They attended general tours of the camps and were divided into small groups in order to visit with different families in their homes. The participants learned about the hardships of life as a person with refugee status directly from camp residents. Currently, unemployment is at eighty percent in the Dheishe Camp. This is caused mainly by the construction of the wall cutting the inhabitants off from their olive trees. In addition, the residents are subject to other forms of discrimination. One woman recounted the story of her son being arrested without charge. He has been in jail for seventeen years now and still has not been charged with any criminal offense.

After the visits, all of the participants convened in the al-Feneiq Center of Dheishe Refugee Camp to attend panels. The first speaker, Muhammad Jaradat, BADIL Resource Center, spoke on the topic of refugee rights and international law today. The second panel was entitled, “The Church’s Response to the Occupation”. The speakers included: Mr. Rifat Kassis, World Council of Churches, Mr. Tarek Abuata, Christian Peacemakers Team, and Mr. George Sahhar, Sabeel board member.

The evening concluded with the Ibda’a Dance Troupe performing Dabka, the national dance of Palestine.

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